Sorabol takes place during the collapse of the Shilla Dynasty, when the Korean peninsula was torn apart by factional strife and reduced to a state of chaos and civil war. A Jewish Radhanite trader, traveling all the way from Muslim Spain, arrives to procure exotic Asian merchandise for consumption in Europe, but finds herself caught up in the rebellion against the corrupt Queen Jinseong, and unwittingly burns one of her greatest cities to the ground, falling in love with a sword-dancer and getting enslaved by the royal palace’s copyists along the way. But “Sorabol” isn’t just a story of adventure and romance. It takes place in an unknown land, in a forgotten time, and examines the civilization-wide clash between Buddhism and Confucianism in the context of a young woman’s search to accept the power of her own femininity.
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And now, for a sample chapter—
7. THE RIVERMAN
Bidding farewell to the driver, whom Kep Tosal had already paid, we stepped off the carriage at the placid riverside by a milestone and waded through the waves and the crowds to one of the nearest ships, which was hardly larger than a canoe and manned by a single small sailor who had only one sail to work with. Such a vessel would be crushed to splinters by the tidal currents the moment it made for the offing, like the lateen-rigged feluccas of the Red Sea, but the river was covered with similar craft drifting back and forth like flocks of swans, their holds swollen with cargo. The owner of our hire lived under a thatched tent at the center of his ship, and told us in the most haggard Midlandese, and almost as soon as the Kambujadesans greeted him and threw their heavy luggage aboard, that his name was Suro, and that he was one of the Garak people who had in ancient times lived to the south before they were conquered and absorbed by Sorabol, a polity of such great antiquity that its founders might well have breathed the same air as Julius Caesar. Suro maintained that both Garak and Sorabol had been created over thirty generations ago when all the land was seeded with golden chicken eggs that had descended from on high. “That’s nothing!” shouted Tep Kosal, folding his arms across his bare chest. “The Holy City’s twice as old!” “Oh?” asked Suro, a smile lifting the curtains in his cheeks. “Twice old you say?” Tep Kosal nodded, smiling back at him. “Well!”, started Suro, “before Sorabol Old Kao-lee was! And before Old Kao-lee Old Chao-hsien was! And before Old Chao-hsien—”
I stopped him there, paying the small old man a little cash (five copper coins) to get us to the capital by nightfall. Kep Tosal asked if he could give me his share of the money, and when I shook my head he put the coins in one of my pockets; when I tried to give the coins back, he put his hand on his sword hilt, saying, with his growing smile, his fulminating teeth, that he was not joking. So I kept the money.
Partly with the help of the wind, but mostly with the aid of Suro’s taut elderly muscle working a long wooden pole that splashed into the black water and sunk into the muck beneath, he pushed us away from the port and into the country. Before long we left the suburbs and found ourselves surrounded by rice farms and huts that resembled Suro’s sleeping arrangements, with brown walls of mud or clay and gray roofs of thatch. The vast mountains were covered in sturdier-looking temples with red pillars and black rooftops of curving tile whose smoking incense I could smell even at this great distance. That sweet, dry odor permeated the air, as did the murmur of the chanting monks, who believed that sin could be washed from the soul merely by reciting certain (admittedly lengthy) sutras, with the result that the chanter would be reborn as a demigod dwelling in the Pure Land above the sky—this according to the heretical readings of my uncle Moses, an illuminated manuscript in human form who took an interest in the religions of all the lands we visited and spent much time studying their most sacred texts during our voyages, sometimes even reciting the dhikr, or the names of god, on his own, and throwing in a few more from Europa, al-Sin, and al-Hind, for good measure, bowing to Mecca with Amin al-Hejaz and Khalid ar-Rahman or debating whether Christ was man, You, or some mixture of both, with Nikephoros Diogenes and Andronikos Dukas. He did this, he said, to get at the true nature of things, to pierce the veil of dreams and illusions and rap at the source core as if with a crow’s beak, the black marble void upon which everything is founded, though he never seemed to succeed, and would always scoff at the elephant-headed idols daubed with red kumkuma in al-Hind, or the wild African dancers leaping and screaming to the throbbing of their malevolent tom-toms, which we saw while sailing up the coast from Mogadishu.
We reclined in the floor of the boat, listening idly to the songs the riverman sang in a language none of us could speak, rising sometimes to prop ourselves up on our elbows in order to watch the naked laborers in their soiled loincloths amid the green rice stalks, heaving and hoeing in sync with their own singing, men and women alike. Drummers walked among them to help keep time, and Suro whistled along with his own songs, his twittering serving as a counterpoint to the lyrics. This little old man, who was burned as black as soil, his long beard and eyebrows colored like the flying clouds, his head ideally bald, told me that he was singing about his village, which was called Koomkwan and located along a river to the south near the port of Donnae, and that though he sounded like a fool in Midlandese, he was an eloquent orator in his own tongue.
In a handwoven basket Suro kept some rice that he’d cooked a few hours before, and with our bare hands we ate a few mouthfuls each. Actually I was ravenous from fighting the beggars, and would have devoured everything Suro possessed, if he’d offered it, but he was wise enough to give me only a little. Regardless, I think he hardly would have cared what happened with his food, preoccupied as he was with singing and shouting greetings to all his friends along the river, which was always thick with sailing canoes. Some of these were transporting goods or passengers, while others were flinging nets into the waves. “I’ve learned that the Sorabolan word for fish translates to ‘water meat,’” said Tep Kosal, and Suro nodded with a content grunt. “Mool-go-gee,” he replied.
Animals were also common. Vast white birds flew over us in echelons, and cranes waded through the water, stabbing at the big dark fish swimming beneath. “Hak!” Suro said, pointing at the birds. “Not delicious,” he added. “Much delicious food in Koomsong.” “What’s Koomsong?” I asked him. “Your moke-jok-jee, your go place,” he replied. “Sorabol different name.”
Happily we drifted down the river of time and memory for a long while, dozing and dreaming to Suro’s songs, the peasants rising and falling in the rice paddies around us, living off the fat of the land, the wild earth. Blessed are You who brings forth bread from the fields that stand from everlasting to everlasting, who makes the river always the same and always different.
The moon had risen above the mountains, and the skies and the trees were all red, when at last the structures lining the river ceased to be built of straw and sunbaked mud. Soon there was sharply-cut masonry everywhere I looked, and even stone stairways leading down to the water, where piers were guarded by statues of lions, turtles, roosters, or water dragons. This was the outer edge of Sorabol.
At the paved riverbank I tried to pay Suro extra for getting us to the city on time, but he refused me with a smile, leaped back into his ship, and pushed off into the quiet waters, as Tep Kosal and his two friends packed their luggage onto their backs. “Will you come with us, barang?” he asked, his eyes glittering with lightning. “They say the queen likes strange young men best of all!” I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I can’t,” I told him. “I have to get back to the port in a few days.” That was the decision I’d made by then. Stay out for a day, buy some nice things, go back, and apologize to my uncle. But if I didn’t make it to the Simurgh I thought I might imitate the Kambujadesans and bow before the Queen, reasoning that an even rarer Daejin like myself would have no trouble finding some sort of employment in her government.
“Then perhaps we’ll meet in our next lives,” said Kep Tosal, smiling, clasping his hands flat together and bowing before flying off into the red darkness.
But the prospect of giving oneself like a sacrifice to the ruler of a strange land frightened me. For amid all these new people—the fat bearded customs official asking to see my passport, the hawkers crowding around me to offer carriages or sleighs or wooden cages full of chickens or ducks, the powdered flowerboys giggling and whispering to each other behind their paper fans at the sight of me, the smiling monks hurrying back and forth in their red robes, the armored soldiers looking far more alert than their brethren at the port, the scholars in flowing black clutching heavy books, the destitute lying in the muck, the poor and naked rushing about in the sombre brooding gloom—I decided that I couldn’t live here. It was shocking to be left alone with these Sorabolans, delightful but at the same time horrifying to be in this land completely by myself, without the shelter of my uncle Moses, that muscled Oceanus, the bearded sea god with his undrowned books…I missed his company and his dinner table sophistries in the candlelight of the Simurgh’s swaying cabin as I struggled through the crowd in search of someone who could tell me where the central market was, like a bumpkin guarding my pockets with my hands.